This small Alaska-based group works with partners throughout Alaska to respond quickly to document marine mammal strandings. They collect data to understand the animal and population health parameters, determine cause of death, and share this knowledge with the public and scientific community. The stranding team works with NOAA partners to update guidance for protecting marine mammals, people, and property.
If you see a stranded, injured, entangled, or dead marine mammal, call the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region 24-hour Stranding Hotline: (877) 925-7773.
Can you tell us about the stranding team?
We are biologists with the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Office who work to support our stranding network partners in responding to stranded or entangled marine mammals throughout Alaska. We receive reports from the public through our stranding hotline, using the reported information to determine what type of response is needed.
If an animal can safely be accessed, we work with our Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network partners in the local area or send stranding members to respond. One goal is to identify the species, sex, and age class, and to collect shape and size measurements from the carcass.
Depending on the state of decomposition, we may do a partial or complete necropsy (animal autopsy) to attempt to determine the cause of death and document any signs of illness or injury. We search for evidence of human interactions, such as entanglement or vessel strike injuries, that may have contributed to the animal’s death. We document all the evidence, and collect samples that are archived or shared with researchers.
Where is the stranding team located, and what role does everyone play?
Our team members are located in our Juneau and Anchorage offices. In Juneau, I am the Alaska Region Stranding Coordinator. Sadie Wright has been part of the stranding team since 2013 and often plays a lead role in coordinating our carcass surveys and stranding responses. We also have Dr. Kate Savage, a veterinarian and NOAA affiliate provides veterinary expertise.
In Anchorage, we have Barbara Mahoney who has been with the stranding program the longest and has an incredible historic knowledge. She responds or coordinates responses for western Alaska and Cook Inlet strandings. Our newest team member, Caroline Cummings, contributes to data management and outreach and will help coordinate and respond to stranded marine mammals near Anchorage. Past members have also included Barb Lake in the Juneau office and Bonnie Easley-Appleyard in our Anchorage office.
Team members have more than 50 years of combined experience in marine mammal stranding responses. Responses require data collection and management, communication and outreach, and detailed documentation and reporting.
We work to support our stranding network partners and, when needed and possible, assist with their responses to stranded marine mammals.
To what animals does the stranding team respond?
We respond to species managed by NOAA Fisheries. In Alaska, this includes all cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises, and whales) and all pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) except walruses. Walruses, sea otters, and polar bears fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Sea turtles are sometimes found stranded in Alaska. When we receive these reports, we collect similar information (e.g., species, condition, location, photos) as we do for marine mammals. NOAA Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service share jurisdiction for sea turtles and coordinate closely on stranding responses for these animals.
How did your team get the nickname “Team Rotten”?
I am fairly new to this position, and the team nickname predates me, so I’m not sure of its origin. I think it is largely because most marine mammals we respond to are dead, in varying states of decomposition, and all have a distinctive odor. If you’ve ever stood downwind of a dead and decomposing marine mammal, you’ll understand that responding is a smelly endeavor.
When people hear about marine mammal stranding responses, they think of rescuing live animals, such as an abandoned, injured, or sick dolphin or seal pup. Team Rotten is a name that accurately reflects much of what we do, which is responding to dead marine mammals.
Our name highlights the importance of reporting dead marine mammals, no matter the condition or decomposition state. We are interested in all stranded animals, even if there is a delay in reporting the information to us. But the sooner you report it, the sooner we can respond and learn something!
How does the stranding team respond to reports of strandings?
NOAA’s Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network hotline covers all of Alaska and we have 15 stranding agreements and network partners throughout the state. A team member will receive a call about a stranded marine mammal, and hopefully we receive pictures taken from a safe distance. If the location or logistics prevent a response by NOAA Fisheries or trained partners with stranding agreements, our team will collect as much information as possible from the local reporting party. If a response is possible, team members and/or partners with stranding agreements will collect data, and measurements. If the animal is dead, we will collect samples.
Often, a community member contacts the local stranding agreement organization to report an alive, dead, or injured marine mammal.
Regardless of how the stranding is reported, a trained stranding agreement member will collect information on the stranding. When possible, they will respond to the animal to collect data, photos, and samples.
What data is collected?
We have standardized national forms that document basic information about the carcass, location, sex, size, and sample collection.
A Human Interaction form is completed to help evaluate evidence of human interactions and how that may relate to each stranded animal. All the information from these forms is entered into a national stranding database and may be used by people all over the country.
The Alaska Regional Office covers the entire state, but there are four other NOAA regions that cover the entire coastal United States. Each regional office coordinates responses to marine mammal strandings and completion of these forms within their geographic area.
What happens to the carcass when the investigation is complete?
In the Alaska Region, where many beaches are remote, the marine mammal carcass is usually left where it stranded. This allows nature to take its course. High tides will occasionally remove carcasses from the beach or scavengers such as bears, wolves, birds, foxes, and wolverines will reduce the carcass to bones in a short amount of time.
What have been some of the team’s most memorable responses?
One of our most interesting responses was the rescue of a beluga calf stranded on an island in Cook Inlet in 2017. The calf was named Tyonek, for a village near where it was discovered. After being rehabilitated at the Alaska SeaLife Center, it was determined that the calf would not survive if he were returned to the wild. He now has a permanent home with other belugas at SeaWorld San Antonio, where he lives today.
Another cool response was in 2019 when we had the first report ever of a dead sperm whale in Alaska’s Inside Passage, here in Southeast Alaska. The stranding offered a unique opportunity for NOAA Fisheries and our marine mammal stranding partners to perform a necropsy (animal autopsy) on a sperm whale. There had been only two other sperm whales necropsied in Alaska since 1990.
Other memorable responses have occurred during carcass surveys, frequently in partnership with NOAA Office of Law Enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard. Surveys have been conducted around Kodiak Island in response to the ongoing gray whale Unusual Mortality Event, in partnership with the Sun'aq Tribe of Kodiak, which has a Stranding Agreement.
We also conducted aerial carcass surveys near Cordova. These surveys focused on the shifting sand shoals of the Copper River Delta searching and documenting marine mammal carcasses. We have learned so much information from the carcasses we observed, and it is always breathtaking to see the Alaskan Coast from the sky while on these surveys.
What should the public do if they encounter a dead, injured, or entangled marine mammal or sea turtle?
The best way to help marine mammals is to report strandings to the NOAA Stranding Hotline as soon as possible, which is monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you are out of cell phone range, the stranding can be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard via VHF Channel 16, and they will relay the report to the hotline. When someone sees a stranded or injured marine mammal, the sooner that information is relayed to the NOAA Stranding Hotline, the sooner we can respond.
If you see a stranded, injured, entangled, or dead marine mammal, call the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Statewide 24-hour Stranding Hotline: (877) 925-7773.
NOTE: If the stranded animal is a walrus, sea otter, or polar bear, call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Marine Mammals Management Office in Anchorage at (800) 362-5148 during business hours), or the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward at (888) 774-7325, which is available 24 hours a day.